Due to my busy life (i.e. constant theatre going, film watching, exhibition attending and exhausted reading at inappropriate night time hours), and circumstances relating to my pecuniary needs combined with software integration problems (i.e. having to earn some money and buy a new computer, a ‘refurbished’ laptop which I’m not very happy with, for many laptop related reasons), I’ve not been writing anything, let alone the bare highlights of the ups and downs of my theatregoing of recent months. I shall rectify this with some short-ish comments on some of the shows I have seen recently (or not so recently in some cases).
Gilgamesh (The Pit), America Debate, Sicko.
What seems like many moons ago I saw Gligamesh at the Pit, a devised piece as part of the Barbican’s Australian season (Ozmosis 07). The aims of the season (presumably to bring a flavour of the strangely unfamiliar Australian theatre scene to London) is laudable, but overall (taking the season as a whole, plus a few Aussie pieces at the Ed Fest) I don’t see the Australians doing things very much differently than we Europeans (I love the incongruity in saying that, because the London/English/British Theatre culture can still feel totally detached, even isolated, from ‘European’ practitioners and styles, which is a shame; let’s have a bit more meaningful collaboration, not just the occasional visit or curated season, much like this Aussie one at the Barbican). Anyway, I won’t go over the pros and cons show (the ancient Mesopotamian epic legend played out in a large sandpit by a cast of three, with some impressive physical business and imaginative visual devices), I do however want to ask a question to anyone who saw the show or indeed the theatre makers themselves (Uncle Semolina & Friends); was Gilgamesh Saddam or Bush? The show was conceived at the same time as ‘America was leading the Invasion of Iraq’ (according to the programme), and obviously the legend is Iraqi, but I got the distinct impression that the murderous tyrant was Mr Bush not Dictator Saddam (the Star Spangled Banner features briefly in the show too). Now call me old fashioned, or indeed politically wrong, but I think Saddam was doing a little bit of oppression and murdering of the Iraqi people before the junior Bush turned up, and is action (Bush’s) in war really directly comparable with a purposeful regime of tyranny, does George Bush actually want to oppress and kill people (and are the Americans doing the killing in Iraq now, no)? Obviously (of course I’m of the left, I like the theatre!) GWB is a terrible man, the worst US President ever, and absolutely wrongheaded on nearly every aspect of foreign (and US domestic) policy (and the Iraq disaster has been mishandled at nearly every turn, from forward planning, disbanding the army, police and civil service, to prisoner abuses etc), but I can’t accept him being fingered as a hysterical butcher in Iraq with the Saddam years forgotten (and it is also worth remembering British and US complicity in his reign whilst he was a bulwark against the Soviets). I think the attitude displayed towards America is all too often glib and unthinking (i.e. universally, black and white, negative), the US is a great country, it has also got some of the poorest and most wretched people inside it
That brings me to Sicko, Michael Moore’s latest film. I agree with Moore about Gun ownership and Guantanamo, but not about his conspiracy theories elsewhere, I also think he can be, to put it mildly, unsophisticated and over the top (as a presentational device, I have no doubt that he is in no way unsophisticated personally, which is demonstrated in his grasp of propaganda and the importance of the overall message and not subtlety in mass communication). So I came to Sicko with caution, but ended up agreeing with him (almost) wholeheartedly, which is his talent. I didn’t end up agreeing with him in reality, I already held firm views on ‘socialised’ healthcare, he just pushed all my buttons and shot some compelling film on the subject. He also took a step back and didn’t make the film all about him (insofar as this is ever possible with him), his incredulous gasps and naïve repeated question to NHS, French or Cuban doctors, did end up a little irritating, and his Guantanamo stunt was not really very effective, but the tales of poor and not so poor people being denied adequate healthcare in the US is shocking and made me very angry. The NHS isn’t perfect, but it is worth defending (in both principal and from verbal, intellectual and political/financial attack).
We Are Shadows, Albany (Deptford)
This was a brilliant, exciting and highly enjoyable new play for young people (and I was any people) by Fin Kennedy, that I was lucky enough to catch in Deptford as part of a short tour by the Half Moon theatre company. I have already gone on far too long about one play and one film (above), so I’ll keep my comments brief. Firstly, the three young actors who related various (mostly) monologues about the interlinked lives of young people in East London (based on Mr Kennedy’s in-depth research in the community), are so terrific, they embody the verve and absolute commitment that enable us to briefly visit the lives of the characters the are portraying. The simple production (directed by Angela Michaels) isn’t negative or downbeat as some ‘inner city’ plays can be, but nor is it rose tinted, the play is a real view of varied and sometimes difficult young lives, which can be funny and touching, it reminded me of David Grieg’s Yellow Moon which entranced me at the Edinburgh Festival this year (which I mean as a compliment), both Grieg and Kennedy seem to have the ring or reality in their dialogue and the simple but often elusive ability to hook us with an exciting and engrossing story.
The Investigation, Young Vic
The Investigation at the Young Vic was a remarkable and moving theatrical experience. A group of Rwandan actors performing a play edited from the testimonies of holocaust survivors (and the accused) at a post WWII trial. Hearing these actors, who had lied through their own countries bloodbath was always going to be an emotive experience, and the words of the survivors were brutally and uncomfortable, but there was an added edge sitting in the Young Vic. The audience. When there is a specific ‘ethnic’ play put on, that group often turns out in force, so a Caribbean play at the Tricycle usually has a big black audience, so here at the YV we had a sizable Jewish audience and African audience (the night I went anyway), I was sitting between a old African lady and a Jewish family that had lost family members in the Shoah. A simple and effective night at the theatre (bare stage, no props, unfashionably words had the most meaning), made more poignant by the cultural connections in the audience.
James Thierree, Au Reviour Parapluie, Sadler’s Wells
What a wonderful title James Thierree’s new show has, but it doesn’t work in English at all (‘I’m just off to see Goodbye Umbrella, I can’t wait’). A visual treat, with the surreal, madcap, juvenile and silly all combining to make a brilliant evening of beautiful movement, dance and hyper theatrical scenes. Charlie Chaplin (the creator’s Grandfather) would have been proud.
The Blacks, Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Genet’s anti colonialist play should make a white audience uncomfortable, and question their part in imperialism and racism, but Stratford East’s production curiously turns that on its head and makes it a black conformation of presence or strength, this is simply because the audience is almost totally black at the theatre (rather than a conscious objective of the directors I should think). So, I, as the only white person in the stalls perhaps should have felt some awkwardness at watching a murder being re-enacted by ‘the blacks’ for a condescending white audience (themselves black actors in white-face, as the playwright intended). But actually I didn’t, because the black audience (and implicitly the actors I thought), were so good as showing up white superiority as a sham and bristling at the thought of deference to Her Majesty (one of the white/black spectators), that I couldn’t possible take any talk of back savages as a real slur. Perhaps I should be mortified at this, because racism and inferences of racial superiority are not far from the surface in modern Britain, from dislike of the Eastern European immigrants to out and out violence and discrimination of black people. So I can’t say that this production actually did much to challenge these modern problems, but it was a stylish and funny production (a ‘remix’ version, with rapping the like, directed by Ultz and Excalibah, the latter who also led the all black cast), certainly a singular sensation (especially when some articulate and highly engaged young black audience members talk to Her Maj when she asks questions to the audience).
Present Laughter, National
I barely laughed in this tortuous, or should I say laboured, production. Somehow I managed to laugh with Simon Callow in the role on tour a few years back, but Alex Jennings is somehow too straight for the role of seductive actor Garry Essendine (the problem being, that I’m projecting Coward into the role). A rare miss for director Howard Davis…
Rent Remixed, Duke of Yorks
Is there any worse excrescence on the London stage at the moment that this monumentally misguided and thoroughly misdirected revival or Rent? The remix part of the title refers to the de-rock-ification of the music; it is now ear bleedingly bland pop rather than ear bleedingly indifferent soft rock. I wont name the poor director, or maybe I should, because the occasional theatregoers who save up for a night out up West are far more wretched than this celebrity choreographer turned director, as they have spent their good money and wasted their precious time.
Saying that, there were a good many ‘rent-heads’ clearly enjoying themselves at the performance I attended, so clearly someone likes this derivative mind numbing drivel, but the majority of sane people will not. The cast are nice to look at and the singing actually often decent, so I’m not blaming the unfortunate actors, they are only doing their best to earn a living. The set however is a totally vile white concoction, a poor mans Ultz design you could say. A flaccid updating of a musical that was hardly a classic in the first place (I’ll kindly call it a product of its time), this is an totally pointless production, devoid of any substantially entertainment (forget character or genuine emotion), with horrible music and some grievous directorial errors (like a screen with the names of AIDS victims scrolling across it, are only the famous dead worthwhile?). Unfortunately the production is not even of comic value as so many errant musicals are.
Swimming with Sharks, Vaudeville
Another rather pointless spectacle, thought not half as grievous as Rent. This Christian Slater vehicle, directed by Wilson Milam, is an adaptation of the film of the same name, and it really was far better off staying on celluloid alone, what is the point of these increasingly popular film to stage adaptations (despite being a rhetorical question I can give you two answers; familiarity and bankablity). The story of a ruthless Hollywood movie exec and the 'education' of his assistant is familiar stuff, and it is decently told in the slick production, but just don’t go looking for anything more then received wisdoms and glossy shallow storytelling, nothing as complex as motivations or character is explored. One for an unthinking night out, thought not altogether abysmal.
Glengarry Glen Ross, Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue
A brilliant and beautifully directed revival of Mamet’s modern classic, with a cast led by Jonathan Pryce and Aiden Gillen. A snappy almost brutally brisk play about low end real estate salesmen in Chicago (who sell parcels of land in far away states, which may be worthless), they are desperate and failing men, both macho and pathetic at the same time. Some people will see the swearword filled dialogue and sharp judgements as a celebration of these men (as I hear this is the hot tickets for estate agents and sales people at the moment, seriously), but of course that is to totally misunderstand the whole piece. This is a cry of pain from men (and it is an all male cast) unsure of their worth, constantly having to prove themselves, the sales work that they do, often unsuccessfully, is brutal and sordid and certainly nothing to be proud of. The world they have been forced to inhabit, could spit them out just as easily as keep them in a job, it really speak volumes for a certain type of capitalistic endeavour. Some brilliant acting is on show, and the Director James MacDonald gives us a flawless production (credit also to the set designer Anthony Ward, and lighting by Howard Harrison). Gillen is so convincing as the go ahead salesman that I would happily have signed a contract with him then and there, and Pryce as a doomed failure is also highly convincing with his haggard everyman persona. Glengarry is a highly enjoyable piece of theatre, which also says something about our sometimes tough consumer society and what exactly we should value.